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An expensive wonder drug used to battle the most severe cases of rheumatoid arthritis could soon treat NHS patients with a range of diseases after cut-price versions became available.
Adalimumab, known by the brand name Humira, dampens the inflammation that causes the joint pain and swelling of rheumatoid arthritis.
But it can also treat other serious inflammatory disorders, such as bowel diseases Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, skin condition psoriasis, and the painful inflammation of the spine called ankylosing spondylitis.
These illnesses, all of which are triggered by faults in the immune system, affect millions of Britons.
However, at £10,000 a year for each patient, adalimumab was one of the most expensive drugs ever prescribed on the NHS, meaning it was given mainly to those with severe disease who did not respond to older, cheaper drugs.
But now, alternative versions of adalimumab that are up to 75 percent cheaper – and no less effective – are on the market.The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which vets NHS drug spending in England, is considering extending their use for less severe rheumatoid arthritis – a review which, it is hoped, could pave the way for wider use in the other disorders too.
Adalimumab is a type of drug known as biologics. While conventional drugs are manufactured by mixing chemicals in a lab, biologics are made using living organisms, such as bacteria, yeast, and even animal tissue and cells.
This makes them costly to develop, which is why drug makers patent their creations and sell them at a high price.
Drug patents usually last about 20 years, after which they expire and other companies are free to create their own versions, which eventually drives prices down.
Pharmaceutical giant AbbVie launched Humira in 2002, and its patent expired in 2018. Several companies have since been granted licenses to produce versions of the drug, known as biosimilars.
The move is part of a wider NHS cost-cutting drive to prescribe cheaper copies of drugs as soon as they become available.